Why Homeschoolers Need Not Fear This New SC School Choice Bill

March 7, 2024

Felicity Ropp

Policy Analyst

Over the past few months, Palmetto Promise Institute has had the joy of helping spread the word to South Carolina families about the state’s new ESA program, the Education Scholarship Trust Fund. In that process, our staff has heard from parents across the state who are interested in using ESA funds to finally give their children the education choice they deserve. The stories they tell are inspiring stories of sacrifice, dedication, and commitment to finding the best education possible for their child. Education Scholarship Accounts can open the door to educational opportunities that low- and middle-income families could never afford otherwise, and the proposed expansion of ESTFs would allow even more families to customize their children’s education. (If you are wondering what an ESA is, please see our explainer here.) 

Earlier this week, the universal ESA expansion bill H.5164 received a hearing before the House K-12 Education Subcommittee, where Palmetto Promise Senior Fellow Dr. Oran Smith shared some of the gripping stories we’ve heard from parents. He encouraged the subcommittee to expand the ESTF program to include these families who are currently shut out. You can watch that testimony here.

The subcommittee hearing took an unusual turn when several homeschool parents testified in opposition to including homeschoolers in the ESTF program. This was surprising to me, because ESAs are tailor-made for homeschooling, as they allow scholarships to be used for extremely flexible purposes, and homeschooling is all about customization. ESA programs in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Utah, and West Virginia all allow homeschoolers to participate. South Carolina’s ESTF program and homeschooling are a natural match.

I know the value of education customization firsthand—I was homeschooled for my entire K-12 education. With the individualization available for me, I took classes at a homeschool co-op, through dual enrollment, online, and at home taught by my parents.

My family never fell into the upper income bracket that seemed to make up the majority of homeschoolers in my co-op. We could not afford the elaborate field trips and extracurricular opportunities of my peers. Because of this educational background, I greatly sympathize with the phone calls we have received at Palmetto Promise from homeschool parents who wish they could utilize ESTF funds for their children but are locked out of the program as it currently stands. I know I wish my family had that infusion of funds when I was growing up.

Yes, some homeschoolers actually asked for all homeschoolers to be left out of the ESA program, citing fears about ESTF participation potentially leading to future regulation of homeschoolers down the road. To me, that loses sight of the issue at hand.

What about now? What regulations are in the actual bill before the legislature now?  

All parents receiving ESTF funds for their child must agree to the following requirements:

  • “To provide, at a minimum, a program of academic instruction for the eligible student in at least the subjects of English/language arts to include writing, mathematics, social studies, and science”
    • This is already well within the existing requirements for homeschooling in the state of South Carolina, which states in Sections 59-65-40, 45, and 47 that homeschool curriculum in Option 1, 2, and 3 should include but is not limited to “the basic instructional areas of reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies and in grades seven through twelve, composition and literature.”
  • “To ensure the scholarship student takes assessments as referenced in Section 59-8-150 [the existing ESTF law] or provides assessments in a similar manner through other means if the scholarship student does not receive full-time instruction from an education service provider”
    • This does not mean that homeschoolers will have to take SC’s public school standardized tests. Just like any ESTF recipient, annual tests can be any nationally norm-referenced or formative assessment approved by the SC Department of Education. That list is growing and already includes STAR Reading and STAR Mathematics, MAP tests,  i-Ready® Diagnostic, Mastery View Predictive Assessments (formerly CASE Benchmarks), SC READY, SC Pass, and Iowa Tests.
    • If families use ESTF funds at a private/independent school, that school is responsible for making sure the student is annually tested. With homeschooling, parents are responsible for ensuring students take those tests.
    • Under South Carolina Homeschooling Option 1, homeschoolers must already take state assessments. Testing is not required under Option 2 or 3, but many homeschoolers do already take annual standardized tests. I know my parents required I take a test every year, to measure my progress and make sure I was ready for college admissions testing. If a homeschool family wishes to accept ESTF funds, they will accept responsibility for ensuring their child takes a standardized test approved by the Department of Education and can even use ESTF funds to help pay for that test. This law does not increase testing requirements for all homeschoolers or anyone that does not wish to participate in the ESTF program.
    • The results of this testing are not required to be reported to the Department of Education or anyone else.
  • Not to misuse program funds by spending them on things other than educational expenses
  • Not to enroll their child in a public school while receiving these funds
  • Understand that if their student has a disability, participation in ESTF is parental placement of the scholarship student under IDEA.

Homeschoolers participating in the ESTF program would have to meet these basic requirements. That’s it.

Does this bill impose more regulations on all homeschoolers? NO.  

Does this bill force homeschoolers to accept ESTF funds and thus meet those testing requirements? NO. 

Does this bill include any regulations over homeschoolers’ curriculum choices? NO. 

Does this bill in any way increase the cost of all homeschooling in SC? NO. 

All H.5164 does is give homeschoolers the OPTION to apply for ESTF funds to help pay for their children’s education. The bill simply strikes a sentence currently in the law which says that ESTF parents must agree “not to participate in a home instruction program,” outlined in other sections of the codes.

The ESTF program is built on using a portal to tap into a range of “education service providers.” In the Arizona ESA program, for example, homeschool organizations are among providers who are able to receive ESA funds through the portal. If a homeschool co-op wishes to register as an education service provider, for example, so parents can use ESTF funds to pay co-op fees, they would need to meet very basic provider requirements outlined in the law and set by the Department of Education. Those can be viewed here. If a provider does not wish to comply with these basic requirements, they do not have to apply to be part of the program. Further, as a protection for providers, the existing ESTF law requires that “the creation of the program does not expand the regulatory authority of the State, its officers, or a school district to impose regulation of education service providers beyond those necessary to enforce the requirements of the program” (Section 59-8-150(F)(2)).

The bottom line is this: parents should have the freedom to make their own choices regarding their child’s education, and H.5164 would not restrict those choices for homeschoolers—in fact, it removes them! If restrictions arise in the future, homeschool parents could simply walk away.

If a family does not wish to participate in the ESTF program as a homeschooler, they are not required to apply for the program and accept the ESTF funds and the (very reasonable) stipulations that come with accepting those funds.

But homeschool parents who wish to utilize that $6,000 scholarship for home education should have the opportunity to do so.  

I would encourage anyone confused about the bill and its requirements to read for themselves the full text of the current ESTF law and the full text of this bill that would amend the existing law. A plain reading would reveal that H.5164 does not encroach on homeschoolers’ rights and does not match their fears.

For further reading on the matter, I would recommend this article from the Heritage Foundation by two trusted scholars.

Homeschoolers should support universal expansion of the ESTF program in South Carolina. It provides greater options for families wherever they may be in their educational journeys, and that is exactly the kind of ideal I have seen the homeschool community champion my whole life.